Unity is only skin-deep
Washington — Republican political professionals wryly agree -- eithe in scorn or in praise -- that President Carter is the most ingenious, effective political tactician since Franklin Roosevelt.
They admit that in the political arena when Jimmy Carter "is good, he is very , very good," as he was in handling the prosecutorial reporters at his press conference on the Billy Carter affair.
And they are quite aware that Carter is at his best as a campaigner when he is lowest in the polls and appears to be going down for the third time.
Well, he will need to be all three of these things if he is to free himself from the baggage of divisiveness and defeatism which his fellow Democrats imposed on him at the bitter convention in Madison Square Garden last week.
Despite a facade of unity it is a depressed and dismembered Democratic Party which Mr. Carter will have to carry on his shoulders throughout the campaign.
It used to be just plain fun for the Democrats to taunt the GOP opposition on their talent for "snatching defeat from the jaws of victory." Right now it looks as though this tired cliche might operate in reverse.
Analysts sympathetic to the Democratic side are writing that the party is split far worse this year than at any time since it nearly denied President Truman renomination in 1948. The bruising and buffeting, a result of the wracking Carter-Kennedy contest, have left wounds which few believe can heal before November.
They'll try, and the President is good at it. But it seems unlikely that the Democrats who called each other unfit to govern will have an easy time stitching together a garment of unity which will not soon fall apart.
Here are the reasons:
* Kennedy and Carter have each been trying to persuade the country that the other is not qualified to be president and voters may by now have become convinced that both are right.
* If the supporters of two such opposites unite to try to elect the candidate they have so totally condemned, who will believe them? Patrick Lucey, Kennedy's deputy campaign manager, pointed out the difficulty if not the impossibility of such a rapprochement by remarking: "Who would believe me if I suddenly starte campaigning for the President after I had been calling him 'a Ronald Reagan clone?"'
* As a result of the Kennedy-Carter feud the two wings of the Democratic Party -- left-wing liberal and moderate liberal -- are deeply divided on nearly every major issue of economic, social, foreign, and defense policy.
* The drumbeat of the Kennedy-Carter contest has been that, if the other is nominated, the Democratic Party is headed for certain defeat.
* Even more threatening to the President is that fact that Kennedy has laid the foundation for almost any attack Mr. Reagan will make against the Carter administration from here out.
This does not seem to me an overstatement.
Right up to the eve of the convention Kennedy was furnishing Reagan with all the arguments he will need to use to make his case for the retirement of the Carter presidency.
This isn't Reagan speaking; it is Kennedy: "The United States has failed and faltered under President Carter."
This isn't Reagan speaking; it is Kennedy: "The four years of Carter we have had already are four years too many."
This isn't Reagan speaking; it is Kennedy: "The last four years have produced recession, unemployment, high interest rates, and foreign policy failures."
To put the whole thing quite bluntly, Senator Kennedy was saying that Ronald Reagan is right in calling for the President's defeat; and has shown him how to say it.
Unquestionably this will perilously strain the unity -- sufrace or substantial -- which the party leaders are trying to bring into being.
It will be a historic Truman-like test of President Carter's resilience and resources to counter it. I suspect that experienced Republicans will not assume that all they will have to do in the coming months is lie back and inherit victory.